Learning on the job

25th November 1994 at 00:00
Mentorship in the Primary School, Edited by Robin Yeomans and John Sampson Falmer Press #163;36, 0 7507 0262 1 #163;13.95. 0 7507 0263 X. James Calderhead on planning teachers' training in primary schools In the rapid move towards school-based initial teacher training, the role of teacher as mentor has become a crucial one. In the past, most of the responsibility and a considerable amount of the expertise in the preparation and support of beginning teachers lay in the hands of tutors in higher education institutions.

These staff were generally appointed to their posts at least partly because of their own excellence as classroom practitioners, but also because they brought some additional expertise in a particular subject area or age group. In addition they often brought experience from involvement in curriculum development work or applied research, as well as experience as a classroom teacher working with students on teaching practice.

Even then, however, it was commonly recognised that becoming an effective teacher educator would take a further five years or so in which the tutor would become much better acquainted with student teacher development, get to know the typical problems that students encountered and develop skill in working with student teachers and helping them develop their practice. They would develop a wide range of skills in counselling, instruction, and negotiation, as well as developing their own knowledge about teaching, the curriculum and teacher education.

Much of the expertise of the teacher educator has gone unrecognised and undocumented, but the move towards school-based initial teacher education, with the consequent need to identify and develop the role of the mentor, has led to some searching questions about the expertise required in teacher education, the balance of such expertise between schools and higher education institutions, and the staff development implications of new partnership models of initial training.

This book presents case studies of 12 mentors in different schools which are involved in three distinct teacher training courses of one higher education institution. Each course (articled teacher, BEd and PGCE) had its own particular mentoring role and expectations for mentors. The study aims to describe what mentors do and what is skilful about their work. It relies heavily on interviews with students and mentors and the researchers' fieldnotes. Its focus is mostly on what teachers and students report about their experiences.

It begins with an interesting historical chapter from John Furlong in which the arguments for school-based teacher training are traced back over 50 years, and the particular combination of political and professional factors identified that led to its recent wholesale adoption.

Later chapters, written mostly by the editors, focus on different aspects of the mentor's work. Although the data was collected in terms of a series of case studies, the reader unfortunately does not get a close feel for what each of the cases is like, for the character of the different schools and teacher training courses and how they were experienced by mentors and students, or for the mentoring relationships and how they developed over the year.

What the book does do, however, is to develop an interesting analytical model of the mentor's task. They first of all define the mentoring role in terms of three dimensions: the structural, concerned with planning, organising and inducting; the supportive, where the mentor acts as a friend and counsellor; and the professional, in which the mentor is a trainer, educator and assessor. These aspects of the mentoring role are further analysed in terms of strategies, skills and qualities, and many examples are provided from transcript and observational data.

The resulting framework provides a detailed and useful account of how one might conceptualise the mentoring task. The authors point out, however,that their model is neither a prescriptive nor a representative one.

It is based on what the small sample of mentors in their study actually did, rather than standing as a model of excellence or as a representation of what all mentors do. Nevertheless, the study does provide useful ways of thinking about the mentoring role and provides interesting material that teachers and those involved in developing mentor training would certainly find useful.

Through comparing and contrasting the 12 case studies, the authors are also able to speculate on some of the factors that influence the quality of the mentoring that goes on in schools. They identify a number of factors, some of which are to be expected, such as time for mentoring to occur, support from the headteacher, and the need for mentors themselves to have a clear understanding of their role.

They also suggest that a collegial atmosphere within the school, in which there is a culture of collaboration, a willingness to engage in a critical discussion about practice, a willingness to share expertise and responsibility for the school's involvement with student teachers, is also highly influential in shaping student teachers' learning. The book concludes with a warning that mentoring is complex and difficult, and that the few mentors studied here were well supported by both their schools and the higher education institution.

Even in this situation many difficulties were encountered. The authors point out that the rapid shift of responsibility from higher education to schools in initial teacher education will inevitably cause difficulties and that too speedy or radical a change could result in student teachers receiving a very narrow experience of teaching and learning and gaining little of the understanding and skills necessary to analyse their own practice and develop it further.

James Calderhead is professor of education at the University of Bath.

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